7 sacred mountain monasteries in Korea listed by Unesco
A MAJORITY of South Koreans have no formal affiliation with a religion, and the ones who do are either mostly Protestants or Buddhists, with the former being the larger group.
However, Buddhism in the Korean peninsula has a long and distinguished history that dates as far back as 372 CE.
The teaching was first introduced by the Chinese when the peninsula was split into three kingdoms – Goguryeo in the north, Baekje in the southwest, and Silla in the southeast.
Buddhism in Korea incorporated elements of the local religion, shamanism, and developed into distinctive Korean forms.
While the fundamental teaching of Buddhism remained, shamanism remained part of Korea’s religious culture.
Three of the most important spirits are Sanshin (the Mountain Spirit), Toksong (the Recluse) and Chilsong (the Spirit of the Seven Stars, the Big Dipper).
They became part of Korean Buddhism and special shrines are set aside for them in many temples.
In the 6th century, Buddhism became the official religion of Silla, with monks from Korea traveling to China to study and bringing Buddhist teachings back home.
The religion continued to flourish during the Goryeo Dynasty (918 to 1392), but with the arrival of the Joseon Dynasty (1392 to 1910), Buddhism was replaced by strict Neo-Confucian ideology.
This resulted in repression of Buddhist monks and believers.
Temples were reduced, monasteries were destroyed, and Buddhist monks and nuns were chased into the mountains, forbidden to interact with society. Some were even prohibited to enter the cities, and Buddhist funerals and almsgiving were banned.
These restrictions lasted until the 19th century.
Some of the remaining monasteries that stood the test of war and time, such as the Sansa, are Buddhist mountain monasteries located throughout the southern provinces of South Korea.
And recently, they’ve been added to Unesco’s world heritage sites, joining 12 other Korean locales already on the list.
“The spatial arrangement of the seven temples that comprise the site, established from the 7th to 9th centuries, present common characteristics that are specific to Korea – the madang (open courtyard) flanked by four buildings (Buddha Hall, pavilion, lecture hall, and dormitory). They contain a large number of individually remarkable structures, objects, documents, and shrines,” Unesco said in a statement.
“These mountain monasteries are sacred places, which have survived as living centers of faith and daily religious practice to the present.”
The inscribed sites, all at least 1,000 years old, include:
Tongdosa Temple in Yangsan, South Gyeongsang
Buseoksa Temple in Yeongju, North Gyeongsang
Beopjusa Temple in Boeun County, North Chungcheong
Daeheungsa Temple in Haenam County, South Jeolla
Bongjeongsa Temple in Andong, North Gyeongsang
Magoksa Temple in Gongju, South Chungcheong
Seonamsa Temple in Suncheon in South Jeolla
Temples such as Beopjusa Temple and Magoksa Temple are part of Templestay, an official program that allows visitors to participate in monastic Buddhist life for short stays.
Unesco said the Sansa has an “outstanding universal value” in upholding Korea’s Buddhist tradition since the 7th century and that each is considered a “comprehensive monastery.”
The organization also advised the Cultural Heritage Administration to come up with measures for dealing with an increase in visitors and recommended preservation and maintenance plans for the buildings.